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The Suburbanite
  • Stark group fights human trafficking

  • The second-largest criminal enterprise in the world has nothing to do with weapons or stolen goods. It’s human cargo. On Friday, members of the Stark County Committee Against Human Trafficking hope to shed more light on a growing problem.

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  • The second-largest criminal enterprise in the world has nothing to do with weapons or stolen goods.
    It’s human cargo.
    On Friday, members of the Stark County Committee Against Human Trafficking hope to shed more light on a growing problem. In recognition of National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, the committee and the Stark County Prosecutor’s Office will sponsor an informational display at the Walmart Super Center at 3200 Atlantic Blvd. NE.
    “It’s a hidden crime,” said Sister Karen Bernhardt, committee chair.
    Ohio is one of the top five states for human trafficking in part due to its extensive interstate system. The state increased criminal penalties for offenders in 2010, and formed a task force in 2012 to combat the crime.
    “Anywhere there’s a major trucking route,” Bernhardt said.“It is very much a problem in Ohio,” agreed James Knight, a crime-prevention specialist for the prosecutor’s office, and a committee member. Knight said people often are surprised to learn that human trafficking exists.
     “In general, there’s a feeling that human trafficking takes place somewhere else, or in another country, like the movie ‘Taken,’” he said.
    CHILD VICTIMS
    Volunteer Elana Koh said she became involved out of concern for children, who make up a sizable percentage of sex-trafficking victims. On a daily basis, an estimated 1,000 minors are entangled in the enterprise.
    “It really aggravates me,” she said. “The average sex-trafficking victim starts out when they’re between 11 and 13. To me, that’s disgusting that there’s a demand. When I was 12, I was still coloring. I can’t imagine that kind of life.”
    Bernhardt said runaway children are prime targets for sex traffickers, noting, “Once they’re a runaway, one in three is approached, on the street.”
    Trafficking children and adults for labor also is occurring, Bernhardt and Koh said.
    “With a child, you have a feel for how a typical 12-year-old behaves, “Koh said. “Kids who are trafficked are often isolated (from other children).”
    “They’re never alone or allowed to speak for themselves,” Bernhardt added. “Many times, they’ll just stare at the floor or hide behind the person they’re with. We’ve tried to make emergency rooms and (urgent care centers) aware of this.”
    Hotels, restaurants, nail salons, factories, migrant camps and construction sites are known to be problem areas for forced labor. Bernhardt said the local committee has worked with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to make employees in those fields more aware of the problem. Other efforts by the committee since it formed in 2008 include presentations to churches and community groups, and fundraising to open a safe house for victims. The Ohio Department of Human Services has written a grant to help fund the home. Catholic Charities of Stark County also houses a resource library.
    Page 2 of 2 - LUCRATIVE, GROWING
    Bernhardt said drug cartels and organized crime are increasingly turning to human trafficking— a $32 billion-a-year business involving 27 million victims around the world — because it’s less risky.
    “It’s easier than drugs,” she said. “In their minds, people are disposable. It’s very precarious for those who are trying to get out of it, as well as for those who are trying to help.”
    Knight said the committee’s goal is to not only education, but also to encourage people to contact law enforcement if they suspect a problem.
    “People should care because it could be a neighbor, a friend; it could be going on right under our noses,” he said. “It can almost happen in front of us and we could miss the signs that could be a major problem. It is, as it’s been reported, modern-day slavery.”
    Bernhardt said she appreciates President Barack Obama’s recognition of the problem during the 150th anniversary month of the Emancipation Proclamation.  To read the president’s proclamation visit:
     http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/12/31/presidential-proclamation-national-slavery-and-human-trafficking-prevent
    For more information about the Stark County committee, call 330-454-6754 or visit the group’s Facebook page.